9.25 Myth about Decline in Voter Turnout

9.25.1 MYTH: A national popular vote would decrease turnout.


  • In 2012, voter turnout averaged 11% higher in battleground states than in spectator states. Therefore, one would reasonably expect that voter turnout would rise in the four out of five states that are currently ignored by presidential campaigns if the President were elected on the basis of the national popular vote.

Curtis Gans, in a speech at the National Civic Summit in Minneapolis on July 17, 2009, asserted that a national popular vote would decrease voter turnout in presidential elections.

In 2012, Curtis Gans and Leslie Francis said:

“By its very size and scope, a national direct election will lead to nothing more than a national media campaign, which would propel the parties’ media consultants to inflict upon the entire nation what has been heretofore limited to the so-called battleground states: an ever-escalating, distorted arms race of tit-for-tat unanswerable attack advertising polluting the airwaves, denigrating every candidate and eroding citizen faith in their leaders and the political process as a whole.”
“Because a direct election would be, by definition, national and resource allocation would be overwhelmingly dominated by paid television advertising, there would be little impetus for grass-roots activity. That, in turn, would likely diminish voter turnout.”[535] [Emphasis added]

These criticisms of direct election of the President ignore the political reality that presidential campaigns under the current system are “media campaigns” that are “dominated by paid television advertising.” Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all system, presidential campaigns cater to the approximately 60,000,000 people living in the closely divided battleground states. The fact that 240,000,000 other Americans are ignored because they live in spectator states does not change the fact that present-day campaigns are “media campaigns” among the 60,000,000 people who matter.

The claim by Gans and Francis that voter turnout would suffer under a national popular vote is contrary to the evidence about voter turnout from numerous studies over the years.

In 2012, voter turnout was 11% higher in the battleground states than in the remainder of the country.

Professor Michael P. McDonald of George Mason University computed voter turnout for each state and the nation as a whole.[536]

Based on the 130,234,600 ballots that were counted in the November 2012 elections, the national turnout rate was 59.4%.

Voter turnout in the nine states identified by the Cook Political Report as battleground states in its October 18, 2012, electoral scorecard (table 1.18) was as follows:

  • 71.1% in Colorado,
  • 63.6% in Florida,
  • 70.2% in Iowa,
  • 57.2% in Nevada,
  • 70.9% in New Hampshire,
  • 65.2% in North Carolina,
  • 65.2% in Ohio,
  • 66.9% in Virginia, and
  • 72.5% in Wisconsin.

The average voter turnout in the nine battleground states was 67.0%—11% higher than the 59.4% rate for the nation as a whole.

In America Goes to the Polls: A Report on Voter Turnout in the 2008 Election, the Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network found that in 2008

“Voter turnout in the 15 battleground states averaged seven points higher than in the 35 non-battleground states.”[537] [Emphasis added]

Concerning the 2004 election, Daniel E. Bergan reported in Public Opinion Quarterly that

“Battleground states had turnout rates that are five percentage points higher than those of nonbattleground states.”[538] [Emphasis added]

USA Today reported the following about the 2012 election:

“Swing-state voters are a bit more enthusiastic about voting this year than those living elsewhere, perhaps reflecting the attention they’re given in TV ads and candidate visits. Nearly half of those in battleground states are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting for president this year.[539]

A 2005 Brookings Institution report entitled Thinking About Political Polarization pointed out:

“The electoral college can depress voter participation in much of the nation. Overall, the percentage of voters who participated in last fall’s election was almost 5 percent higher than the turnout in 2000. Yet, most of the increase was limited to the battleground states. Because the electoral college has effectively narrowed elections like the last one to a quadrennial contest for the votes of a relatively small number of states, people elsewhere are likely to feel that their votes don’t matter.”[540],[541]

If presidential campaigns stopped ignoring 240,000,000 of 300,000,000 Americans, voter turnout would rise in the portion of the country that is currently ignored by presidential campaigns.

Tellingly, the headline of an October 28, 2004, report issued by Curtis Gans acknowledged the higher rate of voter participation in closely divided battleground states:

“Registration Rises Moderately—Battleground States Lead the Way.”

Curtis Gans’ own report goes on to say:

Registration increases in battleground states were geometrically higher than the increases in non-battleground states.”
“Registration increased by 3.9 percentage points in the 12 battleground states which had final figures for this report, while it only increased by 0.1 percentage point in the 14 non-battleground states which reported their final figures.” [Emphasis added]

Moreover, according to Curtis Gans, the turnout in the 2012 presidential election was higher in the battleground states than spectator states. During a televised panel discussion on November 9, 2012, at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Curtis Gans said the following:

In the 9 states where we have campaigns, well I added Pennsylvania, 10 battleground states, the turnout was 62.8%, In the rest, turnout was 54.8%.”[542] [Emphasis added]


[535] Gans, Curtis and Francis, Leslie. Why National Popular Vote is a bad idea. Huffington Post. January 6, 2012.

[536] The figures are from the web page entitled “2012 General Election Turnout Rates” found at http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2012G.html on December 31, 2012. The voter turnout figures are those for the number of ballots that were counted, except for Wisconsin where the highest office turnout rate was used.

[537] America Goes to the Polls: A Report on Voter Turnout in the 2008 Election. Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network. 2008.

[538] Bergan, Daniel E. et al. 2005. Grassroots mobilization and voter turnout in 2004. 69 Public Opinion Quarterly. Volume 69. Pages 760 and 772.

[539] Page, Susan. Swing states poll: Amid barrage of ads, Obama has edge. USA Today. July 8, 2012.

[540] Nivola, Pietro S. 2005. Thinking About Political Polarization. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Policy Brief 139. January 2005.

[541] Voter turnout is adversely affected in non-battleground states because voters of both parties in such states realize that their votes do not matter in presidential elections. As reported by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, “Turnout in battleground states increased by 6.3 percentage points, while turnout in the other states (and the District of Columbia) increased by only 3.8 percentage points.” See Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. President Bush, mobilization drives propel turnout to post-1968 high. November 4, 2004.

[542] Bipartisan Policy Center examines voter turnout statistics. C-SPAN. November 9, 2012. Quotation from Curtis Gans appears at time stamp of 36 minutes into program.